Scotland in Style May 17—25, 2013

Posted by Andrew Whittaker

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Andrew Whittaker

Andrew Whittaker was born in England but considers himself to be Brazilian, having moved to this biodiverse country in 1987 to work for the Smithsonian Institution, banding...

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What more can one ask for than dramatic Scottish Highlands scenery, great birding, stupendous historical sites (castles, stately homes, and battlefields), and a visit to one of the world’s finest Scotch whisky distilleries, where we sampled a wee dram! Combine this with a fantastic group of people based in a wonderful historic Scottish hotel where we were treated to superb meals (we all certainly gained a little weight) and marvelous family hospitality—really, life cannot get much better!

Common Chaffinch

Common Chaffinch— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

Despite one of the coldest springs ever in the UK (5 weeks late), our birding highlights were many: none of us will ever forget our stunning scope views of the Grasshopper Warbler; the White-throated Dipper feeding young right below us on the fast-flowing stream; and the Common Snipe flying over us and landing almost at our feet after tape-playback! Other interesting behavioral observations (“Bambie” moments) included the female Mallard who led her 9 recently hatched chicks safely across the road in front of our vans, and all those playful lambs.

Bubbly crystal-clear mountain streams produced stunning Gray Wagtails and magical White-throated Dippers, while mirror-image lochs, surrounded by pristine Caledonian Pine forest, rewarded us with Great-spotted Woodpecker, Common Redstart, European Stonechat, Northern Wheatear, Goldcrest, and flocks of enigmatic tits that included Crested, Blue, Coal, and Great. Spectacular moorlands, rich deciduous forested valleys, and stupendous mountain scenery throughout were not without birds either: stunning male Ring Ouzel; excellent views of Common Cuckoo; breeding plumaged Eurasian Golden Plover; Northern Lapwing; Willow Ptarmigan (Red Grouse); Red-legged Partridge; Wood Warbler; Yellowhammer; and great studies of a hunting and displaying Short-eared Owl. Towering coastal sea cliffs provided us with a spectacle of thousands of breeding seabirds including the enigmatic Atlantic Puffin, Razorbill, Common Murre, Black-legged Kittiwake, Northern Fulmar, magnificent Northern Gannets, Rock Pipit, and stunning Common Eiders offshore. Countless lochs rewarded us with smart breeding plumaged Red-throated and Arctic loons, Common Goldeneye, Eurasian Wigeon, Reed Bunting, and both Little and Horned grebes also in stunning breeding plumage.

Unfortunately, a Red Fox disturbed our grouse watch, and both crossbills were missing in action; after a disastrous breeding season they had all left. Also, poor weather, especially along the west coast, made it impossible for us to visit the west coast for the White-tailed Eagle.

I’m sure the group will have good memories of many colorful species of tits, European Goldfinch, Common Chaffinch, European Greenfinch, and Eurasian Siskin. For me, however, many fond childhood memories of birding in the UK flooded back during this great tour: hearing the pleasant rambling song, “a little bit of bread a no cheese” gracing the hedgerows, allowing us to locate a stunning male Yellowhammer, and, of course, watching the Common Snipe displaying (a species I studied for many years).

We also explored a wealth of Scottish history, visiting the historical sites of Cawdor Castle (linked with Macbeth and Shakespeare), lovely secluded Balmoral Castle, and the famous Culloden Battlefield where many English and Scottish lives were sadly lost in a bloody battle. And let’s not forget the trip’s mammal highlights: close-up studies of the poorly-known nocturnal Pine Martin (a trip highlight for one of your leaders, Phil, and a first for him), and for us all, the wonderful cute family of Badgers.  

Our fantastic group enjoyed a truly superb Scottish experience. I’m already looking forward to our return next year!        

Top five birds selected by the group:

1- Grasshopper Warbler
2- Ring Ouzel
3- Crested Tit
4- Horned Grebe
5- Tawny Owl